Mubarak's sentence saved his life, but stripped the Egyptians of justice
It is not enough for the Egyptian public to have their president put to trial; they want to see him dead.
The tussle between the crowd of spectators and security forces in the Cairo Police Academy courtroom was quickly copied at Tahrir Square, where thousands of people are currently calling for a change to the verdict served on Egypt's ousted president, Hosni Mubarak.
The people who toppled the Mubarak regime, who set up their own new parliament and is on the verge of electing their new president, are not satisfied with the sentence, and are not especially impressed with the historical precedent in which an Egyptian president is put on trial. "The nation wants to put the president to death," the protesters shouted in Tahrir Square.
The courthouse that served Mubarak and former Interior Minister Habib Adli with a life sentence but acquitted Mubarak's sons, Gamal and Alaa, and the assistants of the former interior minister, surprised Egyptian legal experts and frustrated the public. Mubarak's lawyers estimated that he would be served between 10 and 25 years in prison. There was no mention of a life sentence or a death sentence. The "public" wanted death.
It looks like the majority of the frustration stems from the gap between the feelings of the public and the historical narrative that was constructed for more than 30 years, over Mubarak's key role in Egypt's decline into a corrupt and suppressed state, about the "rape of the state" and responsibility for national crimes, between a verdict that, among other things, acquitted figures who symbolized corruption, his sons – one of whom, Gamal's, desire to inherit Mubarak's role – which helped sparked the fire of the revolution. Democratic processes, of which justice and the rule of law are an inextricable part, may be the most frustrating part, and for the Egyptian public that had to suffer for generations a justice system that repressed their rights, this is a great dilemma. Between the verdict ruled in "his" court as part of the revolution, which instilled strength in the public, to getting even with a history that must rely now on those same laws passed during the oppressive regime, on evidence, on technical claims and on the granting of rights to the accused, that sense of "justice" is lost.
It is doubtful whether any judgment other than the death penalty would have satisifed the longing for revenge that is felt widely among the Egyptian public. But this trial is of paramount importance beyond the punishment of Mubarak and his followers. This is the first time that an Egyptian president has been punished by a court in a legal procedure that the public believes to be free of outside influence. Mubarak is the only head of state among those ousted in the Arab Spring who did not flee the country like ex-Tunisian President Ben Ali, was not murdered like ex-Libyan President Muammar Gadhafi, did not make a deal to transfer the regime as ex-Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh did, and, most importantly, did not choose a blood-soaked war against his citizens as Syrian President Bashar Assad has done.
Mubarak's trial sends a particularly important message to the Egyptian president that will be chosen in the run-off elections in two weeks time and it is also an important message to the public, which has now taken on the supervision, control and criticism of any future president or regime that might try to bring autocracy back to Egypt. In addition, this trial and verdict are important warning signs for leaders and populations of other Arab countries in the region.
While the verdicts do not end the legal process - Mubarak's lawyers announced that they intend to appeal - the precedent has already been set.
It seems, however, that the court itself was under pressure to sentence Mubarak ahead of the presidential vote on June 16 and 17. The Supreme Military Council, headed by General Tantawi, was subjected to public scrutiny in light of what was seen as its deliberate foot-dragging over the trial. Tantawi made it clear to Mubarak before his ouster that the army would not act against the Egyptian public, thereby determining the political fate of the deposed president.
The general did not want to be associated with the accusation that the army still protects Mubarak. The judgment could be used by the military to demonstrate that it is innocent of this accusation and to prove that it is worthy of innocence and that it is worthy of the public support in the post-revolutionary period. The status of the army, which was the "ally of the revolution" as it was called by protesters, has eroded in recent months, and in light of the military's anticipated struggle against the Islamist parliament, it was important for the military to end Mubarak's trial quickly, in order to rehabilitate its public legitimacy.
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